On the Occasion of Spoon and Stable’s Opening, Some Thoughts on the Fellowship of Chefs
Thomas Keller–attired in his preferred civilian ensemble of black turtleneck, sport coat, and jeans–entered the open kitchen at Spoon and Stable, Gavin Kaysen’s brand new Minneapolis restaurant, during a pre-opening party last Thursday night, and shook hands with every cook on the line. To casual observers, if they noticed at all, it probably didn’t seem like much — a friendly, supportive greeting from one of Gavin’s mentors, who also happens to be one of the most acclaimed chefs in the world.
But to anybody familiar with kitchens of a certain caliber, and their history, those handshakes had great significance. At Keller’s restaurants, chefs, cooks, and commis “shake in” and “shake out” with each other every day. It’s such an ingrained aspect of life within the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group that former French Laundry chef de cuisine Timothy Hollingsworth once told me that if a member of his brigade failed to make the rounds at night’s end, he’d phone that person up the next morning to ask if he or she was upset about something.
This is not unique to Keller’s restaurants–the ritual of shaking hands with one’s colleagues is a sign of mutual respect, and respect for the work at hand, that is observed at great restaurants all over the world, including Cafe Boulud, where Gavin was executive chef before decamping for Minneapolis back in the spring. And shaking hands in another chef’s kitchen … well, that’s a special sign of respect and solidarity all its own. I don’t know Thomas’s inspiration for doing it, and I was trying not to bug people with journalistic questions the other night, but one of his heroes, the great French chef Paul Bocuse, famously did just that, frequently making a beeline for the kitchen when visiting a restaurant, even sometimes entering via the service entrance rather than the front door. Many who cooked at Le Cirque in the 1980s vividly recall Bocuse’s frequent visits decades back, and the thrill of shaking hands with him.
This might all seem like a massive digression from a report on my friend Gavin’s new restaurant, Spoon and Stable (formerly to be called Merchant), so before I say anything else about it, I’m happy to report that the new venture already had an air of triumph about it during the party I flew in to attend. The gargantuan space in Minneapolis’ North Loop has been reimagined as a soaring, airy dining room with an open kitchen at the rear. There are hardwood floors, covered with burgundy-hued rugs in places to dull the noise, plush camel-toned banquettes around the perimeter, two private dining rooms, and a staff of bright-eyed cooks and servers chomping at the bit to welcome customers, which I guess is appropriate since the space, true to its name, used to be a stable.
Truth be told, I hadn’t planned to write about my visit, having already sung Gavin’s praises in this space a few months back. I was just there to celebrate the moment. But those handshakes provided some irresistible inspiration, making tangible the notion of a continuum which flowed through the evening, dots there to be connected to tell Gavin’s story and that of the restaurant.
The Big Apple was well-represented in Minneapolis that day: Gavin’s chief mentor, Daniel Boulud, was on hand, and I flew in with industry insiders Joel Buchman and Bob Grimes (who generously gifted many of the photos featured in this post), who have strong personal and professional attachments to the Bocuse d’Or, Citymeals on Wheels, Thomas, Daniel, and Gavin. We all met for a drink at the speakeasy-ish Marvel bar across the way from Spoon and Stable, and just before his party began, Gavin came over to join us for a quick pop–bravely wearing just his whites in the arctic temperature–accompanied by his first culinary mentor, local chef George Serra.
I’d known about Gavin’s relationship with Serra for years, because Gavin told me all about it when we interviewed for my book Knives at Dawn. Serra basically discovered Gavin as a teenager, working at a Subway shop next to Serra’s restaurant Pasta Time. “He would come in and get a four-inch tuna sandwich on a round bun every Saturday,” Gavin told me back in 2008. “He would buy it and always give me shit because I would wear my Subway hat backwards. He would be, like, ‘Why don’t you wear it forwards, like your uniform suggests?’ And I was like, ‘I like to wear it backwards. I get to see more things.’ Really it was me being a stubborn sixteen-year old kid.”
Despite his objections to Gavin’s sartorial insanity, Serra kept coming to Subway, ordering the same sandwich, but in time he began throwing it away on his way out the door. Finally, Gavin asked him what the deal was and Serra explained, “I like to watch you with the customers. I think you are very talented and I wonder if you would like to work for me some day.”
The negotiation was swift: For a buck more an hour, Gavin moved next door to Pasta Time. (Teenager that he was, Gavin didn’t realize the political faux pas of taking a job right next door.) He didn’t necessarily learn the style of French cuisine he’d go on to specialize in while working there, but Gavin says that Serra taught him how to love food and taking care of people.
Watching Gavin and Serra together, it occurred to me for the thousandth time what a unique industry professional cooking is. It is astounding how many great American chefs found the kitchen almost by accident, taking a high school job as a prep cook or dishwasher and discovering a passion. For many, the passion was for the kitchen first and for cooking second. There are many who find salvation among the burners and Salamanders, pots and pans… a surrogate community that filled gaps in their lives. It’s no accident that nightly staff dinner in a restaurant is called “family meal,” because family is what the crew becomes to many who work there, although it must be said that Gavin’s family is very much intact and close-knit; they are one of the reasons he and wife Linda moved back to his hometown earlier this year, and both his parents, David and Nancy, were on hand Thursday night, as was his brother Sean, who also designed some of Spoon and Stable’s flourishes, such as a display of some spoons that Gavin has pilfered from restaurants all over the world, a habit that he’s somehow made a trademark, accepted gesture over the years.
Another distinguishing aspect of professional cooking is that it’s a pursuit that almost demands the encountering and auspices of a mentor. Sure, you can learn the basics in school, but like any great craft, it’s really passed down through more intimate relationships, ones that involve careful tutoring and often a little essential ass-kicking. It’s a parent-child or big brother-little brother dynamic and just as most of us never stop calling our parents “mom” and “dad,” chefs never stop calling their mentors “Chef” and will often refer to them until their last days on earth as “my chef.”
And so there stood Gavin Kaysen, a man in his own right, but surrounded by a quartet of fathers throughout the night: His biological father David, and his professional fathers Serra, Boulud, and Keller. (And I’d be remiss if I didn’t include mom Nancy, a glittering figure on the night.)
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Of course, Gavin’s closest bond is with Boulud. The three of us were all in the kitchen at one point in the evening when Gavin mentioned he had to make a speech.
“Yeah, yeah, let’s do that now,” said Daniel, ushering the chef-owner out of his own kitchen. Gavin and I traded a smile; Daniel would always be his chef, even in Gavin’s house.
In the dining room, Gavin took microphone in hand and hopped up on the pass. This too seemed part of a continuum, a dramatic flourish no doubt inspired by Daniel, who once welcomed journalists to a sneak-peek at Boulud Sud from atop a construction ladder, and who has a habit of gleefully hopping onto banquettes, tables, and any other surface that strikes his fancy at after-hour gatherings.
Gavin gave a touching speech, thanking friends and family, designers and contractors, other restaurants that had sent family meal in recent weeks, people who had traveled in from out of town (other New Yorkers included All Clad’s Culinary Director Lisa Callaghan and chef manager Scott Feldman), and so on. He made a special point of thanking his first chef, Serra, and his subsequent role models, Keller and Boulud.
There was applause, and plenty of camera flashes. He thought that was the end of it, but as the applause peaked, Boulud appeared at his side, took the mic, and urged Keller to join him, which he did, reluctantly.
Daniel made his remarks, congratulating Gavin, praising the kitchen team, then handed the microphone to Thomas and told him to say something.
“Why?” Keller deadpanned, clearly wanting to cede the evening to Gavin, and let him own the spotlight. But then he produced the great speech of the night, about how years ago, when he was starting out, you wouldn’t have seen chefs supporting each other the way they were on this night (indeed there were several Minneapolis chefs in attendance). Thomas went on to say that Gavin had soaked up great influence working for Daniel and that now he was bringing that experience back home to Minneapolis. He turned to the kitchen team behind him and told them that someday they’d be chefs, and pass down the knowledge to their teams.
The whole night was rife with signs of tradition being conveyed: Chef Erik Anderson, who once worked at The French Laundry, was on hand. Chatting late in the evening, he told me how onetime TFL sous chef Devin Knell taught him how to make pithiviers … years later he saw a cook on the East Coast make pithiviers and knew just by looking at the product that the other chef, too, had been instructed by Knell. Then there were chefs Steve and Jules Vranian, alums of Stars’ kitchen in San Francisco, who live in Minneapolis, and whose son Evan is working for Gavin.
And there were signs of the continuum in the way the team broke down the kitchen and scrubbed it down at the end of the night, just as other cooks were doing all over the country and the world, and are doing somewhere right now as you read this.
As there are in many restaurants today, there’s a bookshelf in the kitchen at Spoon and Stable. It houses a collection of tomes that span several decades. Toward one end of the shelf there’s an antiquated-looking hardcover edition of The Great Chefs of France, its name etched ornately on its spine, its cover protected by a thin plastic jacket. I imagine that many of you reading this might not have heard of this book but for America’s first generations of homegrown chefs, it was an inspiration, and a North Star. David Kinch used to sleep with it by his bedside, had memorized all of the featured chefs’ menus. Terrance Brennan owned a copy. And Michael Lomonaco. The list goes on and on.
A young Thomas Keller owned one, too, back when he was an aspiring toque. In a book interview with me around this time last year, we were discussing how chefs began to network with each other in this country in the late 1980s. Of that development, he said, “I think one of the things that inspired me to become a chef or continues to inspire me to become a chef was the book The Great Chefs of France. You look at that book and you look at those guys and they were all comrades, they were colleagues, they were friends. They did things together outside the restaurant. And we didn’t have that in this country. We were skeptical. We were apprehensive. We were threatened by other chefs. So the idea of bringing chefs together is an extraordinary thing.”
As Keller and Boulud left the kitchen for the final time last Thursday night, they shook hands with the phalanx of cooks and servers who had spontaneously lined up along the corridor, one last gesture of solidarity, a final sign of respect and faith. Then they stepped out into the frigid Minneapolis night, into an SUV, and were off. By Friday morning, they were in the air, bound for different destinations.
They left behind a favorite son, and his eager crew. It was no doubt an inspiration to have those chefs on hand and, I suspect, it was also a bit sobering. Spoon and Stable’s team will shake hands with each other at the end of service tonight, and for many nights to come. And, in time, inevitably, they will shake hands with other cooks, and then in other kitchens. And every night the handshake will signify the same thing: that each of them, in his or her own way, is a link in a chain, a connection to their industry’s future, and its past.